Living in Singapore, it can sometimes seem that climate change is a concept that is remote to us and our daily lives.
After all, it is not something that you immediately see or feel when you look out the window. Unless you were outside in Ang Mo Kio on 13 May last year, where Singapore’s daily temperature hit 37 degrees celsius for the first time in 40 years. It would also not escape our attention that we now have gone from daily torrential downpours suddenly being replaced by dry and hot weather.
And when I speak to older constituents, one thing that often comes up is how much more comfortable our climate seemed to be in the past. And the data backs it up: the latest Met Service report says that the 10-year period from 2013 to 2022 was Singapore’s warmest on record, with the man-made urban environment a significant contributing factor. The number of very hot days where daily maximum mean temperature exceeds 35 degrees has also increased over the last few decades, and according to the third National Climate Change Study will continue to increase depending on how fast Singapore and the world decarbonises. In fact, my constituency of Sengkang is 1 of 5 regions listed as having very high urban heat vulnerability in Cooling Singapore’s 2020 Urban Heat Vulnerability analysis.
But I don’t want to just focus on doom and gloom today. Instead we can frame the problem we face in another way: while we cannot, on our own, stop the climate from getting hotter, we can reduce the impact global warming has on the immediate environment around us. Reducing this impact is not just a matter of what is nice-to-do. It is a must-do. We have to work to mitigate higher temperatures because firstly, there are substantial social and economic costs if we do not do so. Secondly, if we do not do this now, we are just kicking this problem down the road for our children to live with and with the result that they will be the ones who will have to pay much more as a result of path dependency.
And we can do this because there are proven ways of doing so now and new ways in the future that I am optimistic we can develop with sufficient attention and investment. In 2019, the government announced that it may spend $100 billion or more to protect the island from rising sea levels. While spending of such scale is unlikely to be necessary for heat mitigation, mainly because many interventions can be made through regulation and private sector participation, I believe Singapore’s strategies to mitigate and adapt to the urban heat have to better take into account socio-economic issues. They also need to be accelerated, and need to be given regulatory teeth.
First, I would like to point out some socio-economic dimensions to the urban heat problem that would help us identify principles and priority areas to work on.
Last year, MSE and NEA introduced a new Heat Stress Advisory for the public as well as introduced rules to reduce heat stress risks for outdoor workers. These are important developments in Singapore’s workplace safety journey. But I believe the next step would be to tackle indirect but heat-related safety issues. It is a well-studied phenomena that humid heat exposure significantly increases thermal load during sleep and affects sleep quality. Alongside the adverse impact on mental health and other physical health effects that heat can cause, poor sleep quality paired with long work hours are also known to contribute to a higher risk of workplace injury.
While dormitory standards for migrant workers were updated in 2021, there are many exemptions, including dormitories with leases expiring before 2034 and those with six beds or fewer. The new standards also introduce requirements for an “adequate number of fans”, but it appears that these requirements are more Covid-related than heat related as there are no temperature requirements. With many such dormitory residents operating heavy machinery or driving large vehicles, should we not be paying particular attention to sleep quality?
Research has also indicated that apart from having a greater impact on older people’s sleep quality, heat also affects them more disproportionately in other less thought about ways. For instance, some medicines for chronic diseases affect the body’s ability to regulate body temperature. The Minister for Sustainability and the Environment recently said in an SQ response that she would take up my suggestion to provide air-conditioned RC venues and study rooms during prolonged and severe heat waves. I hope that if and when implemented, this offering can be integrated into NEA’s new Heat Stress Advisory so that residents who need this, particularly older people, are aware of this offering.
But perhaps the most obvious is the impact that urban heat has on those who are less well off. While better-off Singaporeans can simply turn on the air conditioning or even afford to live in passively-cooled buildings, one of the few options available to the less well-off is to cool down with cool showers. The Home Improvement Programme and Climate Friendly Households Programme could be good foundations for encouraging households to take up heat-resilient efforts. For instance, subsidies can be added for fans or blackout curtains. Also, could the existing Climate Friendly Households vouchers scheme be expanded beyond the 300,000 qualifying 1-3 room flats to support vulnerable residents living in larger households?
While HDB already designs HDB blocks and towns with windflow and thermal comfort as considerations, it should also pay special attention to inequality in heat resilience when designing HDB blocks. Residents in rental flats and smaller flats should be prioritised in efforts to ensure thermal comfort and windflow. An interim solution could be to offer rental flat residents living in the warmest blocks of flats ready access to public air-conditioned venues in their immediate neighbourhoods during the hottest times of the day for much-needed respite.
Also, I understand that many old estates with rental flats were built when such high quality modelling was not readily available. Could the government develop quantifiable targets to retrofit old estates to deal with Singapore’s heating? The Built Environment Industry Transformation Map has set some standards for future buildings. I suggest we apply some of these goals to older buildings instead of waiting for leases to run out.
It is important to tackle these issues because the impact of urban heat on mental health, sleep quality, heat stress, and physical health – for example, heat being a trigger factor for conditions like eczema – on vulnerable groups is tangible and compounds other challenges they already face. But beyond what is necessary, vulnerable groups should also be accorded a decent living standard with regards to heat. Not only are these groups least able to adapt to climate change, they typically have contributed the least to climate change-causing carbon emissions.
The second point I want to make is the importance of acting quickly. When I refer to tackling urban heat quickly, I do not mean disregarding or recklessly accelerating measures from R&D to rollout. What I mean is to carefully take into account pathway dependency, or the constraints past decisions impose on later decisions.
For instance, the pilot study of 130 Tampines HDB blocks coated with heat-reflective paint is a good example of a project that takes a preventive approach to increasing temperatures. Sengkang Town Council will be closely following the results of the project which is expected to conclude later this year. Given that this type of paint costs more, we hope that there can be subsidies given to roll this out to rental flat blocks if the results are promising.
While many mitigation and adaptation concepts have only been tested in wealthier cities outside the tropics, some concepts should theoretically be feasible for trial in Singapore. The Dutch city of Arnhem, for example, has aimed to reduce asphalt cover by 10% as part of its climate change adaptation plan, and has begun digging up asphalt in areas with low vehicular traffic.
In the Chinese city of Fuzhou, called a new “furnace city” for severe stress from the urban heat island effect brought about by urbanisation and climate change, a study of 31 urban parks found that they cool surrounding environmental land surface temperatures by an average of 2.9 degrees celsius in summer. While the precise impact of parks in Singapore are less well studied, Bishan Park can be up to about 3 degrees cooler than residential blocks in the city. With many peripheral and non-core forests designated for development in URA’s 2019 masterplan, and leaving aside the impact to biodiversity and carbon emissions, we should be doing our best to retain as many of these as possible in the form of parks, because it takes decades and significant costs to reestablish such green spaces should authorities decide to reintroduce green spaces in the future. In view of this, how does the latest URA Masterplan review treat the retention of green cover? Does it give such considerations high or low priority?
There are also socio-economic impacts, with property prices near green spaces higher than those further away. One study led by PhD student Teo Hoong Chen at the NUS Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions found that in the 2010s, prices for a HDB flat rose by about $553 for every 1% increase of tree cover within 200m of the flat. Teo noted that with declining green areas across the country, buyers tend to value greenery near their homes a lot more. While this contribution could be partly due to the perceived aesthetic and mental health benefits green spaces bring, what is evident is that such trends disadvantage those who can afford to spend less on their property. Perhaps URA’s plan for every household to be within a 10-minute walk from a park by 2030 should take into account such considerations. For instance, the 5 regions listed as having very high urban heat vulnerability in the Urban Heat Vulnerability analysis could be given additional attention with green spaces retained and created around denser and lower-income neighbourhoods.
In Singapore, the Singapore Green Building Masterplan has set a 2030 target for 80% of buildings to be Green Mark certified, 80% of new developments to be super-low energy, and an 80% energy efficiency improvement from a 2005 baseline. Since 2021, all new and existing public sector buildings undergoing major retrofitting are required to attain Super Low Energy certification. While this is a substantial improvement from previous targets, the government should accelerate plans to retrofit all public sector buildings in line with the Super Low Energy certification as part of its commitment to having the public sector take the lead on sustainability. Particular focus should be placed on ensuring new buildings and building retrofits near residential areas meet Super Low Energy certification in order to reduce heat emissions.
The Green Mark certification could also be updated to take into account the direct impact of buildings on their surroundings in terms of heat to incentivise shade and discourage excessive asphalt and concrete.
Third and finally, I would like to make the point that regulation plays an important role in tackling our problems with heat in Singapore. We need to leave no stone unturned. These can be new things we have not done yet, like considering the development of legislation that makes it easier for condominium MCSTs to install solar panels, which shade buildings and reduce demand for fossil fuel-powered electricity. We can explore the need for climate change impact assessments for new infrastructure, and potentially require F&B establishments to serve hydrating and healthy tap water for free.
In some of these cases, there are intermediate solutions which could pave the way and ready the public for regulation. For instance, ensuring that the National Stadium and other events venues do not prohibit visitors from bringing in their own water is a good start. LTA could also fit all MRT stations with water coolers in a quick and meaningful intervention given that people in Singapore are the biggest spenders on bottled water in the world on a per capita basis according to a UN think-tank report in 2023, and this is even though our tap water is highly drinkable and well-regulated. This will go a long way in helping outdoor workers such as delivery riders and construction workers, as well as the general public, stay hydrated in a warming Singapore.
Every day our environment gets hotter is a pivotal day for our country. This is not to say we should try and build a weather machine or an air-conditioned dome. But what we are doing well, we should do as quickly as we can. And what we are doing wrongly or planning to do wrongly, we should do differently so we are not locked into bad choices that our children will pay for.